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Why Three Vaccine Skeptics Changed Their Minds

Ken Budd
August 3, 2021
Thoughtful Asian Woman Listening to Healthcare Worker Explaining About Covid-19 Vaccine

Given the rise of the Delta variant and a sharp uptick in hospitalizations among the unvaccinated, a growing number of people who were originally skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccines are rethinking their positions.

Death seemed near as Joshua Garza said his final goodbyes to his family. He’d arrived 11 days earlier in a Houston hospital with severe COVID-19 symptoms — low oxygen levels, unable to walk — and doctors said there was nothing else they could do. But that day, after Garza spoke to his 12-year-old son, he decided to keep fighting. He requested a transfer to another hospital and was sent to Houston Methodist Medical Center, where he spent five weeks on an ECMO system — similar to a heart-lung bypass machine — which kept him alive until his condition improved.

Ultimately, Garza needed a double lung transplant, which he received on April 13, and he was released from the hospital in late May. But his suffering could have been avoided. Garza was eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine in January due to underlying health conditions, yet he declined. Now he wants others to avoid his near-fatal mistake.

“The amount of pain I endured during this ordeal is something that I never want to replicate,” Garza said via video testimony during a House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis hearing on July 1. “If I could change my decision back in early January to go forward with the vaccination I would.”

Like Garza, a growing number of vaccine skeptics are rethinking their positions. Back in January, 23% of adults in a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll said they would “definitely not” get vaccinated or would only do so if required. In a follow-up poll in June, roughly a quarter of that group had changed their minds. Of these, 25% rethought their resistance after vaccinated friends and family members experienced no serious side effects; others credited conversations with doctors (11%), easing of restrictions for vaccinated people (9%), pressure from friends and family (8%), and the chance to safely visit family members if vaccinated (3%). As more unvaccinated individuals are infected by the Delta variant in the United States — and as more patients plead for the vaccine on their deathbeds — other skeptics may reexamine their doubts.   

It’s already happening. North Dakota legislator Keith Kempenich admits that he didn’t take the pandemic seriously until he was infected. The state’s health department is seeking testimonials from vaccine converts like Kempenich for a public education campaign. In Nashville, conservative radio host Phil Valentine had mocked vaccination campaigns until he contracted COVID-19 in mid-July. On July 22, his family issued a statement, noting that Valentine “regrets not being more vehemently ‘pro-vaccine’” and hopes to more “vigorously advocate that position as soon as he is back on the air.” Valentine is now on a ventilator in the critical care unit of a Tennessee hospital.

I have a feeling some minds will change only because we’re seeing an increase in cases and hospitalizations,” says Rosha McCoy, MD, AAMC senior director of advancing clinical leadership and quality and principal investigator of an AAMC-CDC cooperative agreement to build confidence in the COVID-19 vaccines. “People are going to come in contact more with people who’ve gotten sick. Unfortunately, I think that may have the most impact. Of course, as health care professionals, we are all hoping we will be able to reach people before they or their loved ones get sick.”

To understand how minds can change, here are the stories of three skeptics turned believers.

Kim Simmons

Small business owner, Arlington Heights, Illinois

Whether it’s vegetables or medicine, Kim Simmons is careful about what she consumes. “I like to eat organic,” she says. “I don’t like to put chemicals on my body or in my body.” But when the COVID-19 vaccines arrived, Simmons was more than cautious. She was scared.

“I was afraid because it was so new,” says Simmons, 61, the owner of Typing Etc!, a company in Arlington Heights, Illinois, that provides typing services to businesses. “I had seen a lot of horror movies. I didn’t want to turn into a zombie like I Am Legend.”

Okay, she’s joking (somewhat), but just as Will Smith’s character developed a zombie antidote in the movie I Am Legend, Simmons found an antidote for her skepticism: information. She had researched the vaccines to understand their technical underpinnings, specifically, how the messenger RNA vaccines teach the body to recognize and react to the spike protein in the virus, triggering an immune response. Then, while watching C-SPAN in December 2020, she saw Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Chris Beyrer, MD, talking about the vaccine’s trials, efficacy, and safety.

“He said something that was really important to me: That when vaccines are new, and they have trials, any issues generally happen in the first 90 days,” she says. When Beyrer made his C-SPAN appearance, five months of vaccine trials had revealed no adverse reactions. “At that point I was all in,” she says. “I was no longer afraid. No one had turned into a zombie. We were good.”

Once Simmons received the Moderna shots in March and April, she championed the vaccines to family and friends. Her husband was eager for a vaccine, but the couple’s 41-year-old son was reluctant. Simmons kept sharing the benefits.

“I don’t know if it was me prodding or him just getting information, but he got vaccinated and he made sure that my grandson was vaccinated,” she says.

Simmons’ vaccine conversion further increased some COVID-related tension with her friends. In 2020, as Simmons stayed in her pandemic bubble, a few of her girlfriends were going to bars. “I’m like, ‘Why are you guys doing this?’” she says. “They didn’t tell me for weeks because they were so embarrassed.” As she touted the vaccine, she encountered resistance, for reasons ranging from politics to health concerns. Eventually she was ostracized.

“No one would text me,” she says. “They formed their own little text group and kept me out of it for a long time.”

Then each of the women got COVID-19. And then they all got vaccinated. Now that her friends have received the vaccines, they hang out together again — and Simmons continues to promote the benefits of vaccination.

“If 99% of the people who are dying from COVID [now] are not vaccinated, then what are you waiting for?” she says. “You’re playing a game of Russian roulette with your life.”

Elizabeth Greenaway

Marketing and communications consultant, Williamsport, Pennsylvania

Elizabeth Greenaway is a conservative Christian, but faith and politics are not why she resisted the vaccine.

“The newness was really my concern,” says Greenaway, 34, a marketing and communications consultant in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. “It felt like a real-world science experiment. There were a lot of unknowns when it came to the short- and long-term effects. I knew that trials had been done, but it was a limited population. I felt uneasy about that.”

Greenaway prayed about whether to receive the vaccine. She also conducted research and investigated the views of infectious disease experts, most notably Paul Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Greenaway’s two-year-old daughter suffers from a rare condition and receives treatment at CHOP. The hospital’s excellent care increased Greenaway’s trust, and as she watched Offit answer vaccine questions in a series of CHOP videos, one comment resonated.

“I found a video where he talks about how in the history of vaccines, there has never been a long-term side effect that is not discovered within six weeks,” she says. “That was huge to me.”

Other factors also affected her thinking. Her normally hesitant mother, a nurse, eagerly obtained the vaccine. And people weren’t suffering adverse reactions, she noticed.

“Over time, I saw that nothing bad was happening,” she says. “You see the information about the blood clots and the myocarditis, and I certainly think those are worth considering depending on your health, but the reality is that they’re rare.”

For Greenaway, embracing the vaccine was an intellectual, spiritual, and moral exercise. What if she gave COVID-19 to her grandparents? Her parents? Or her daughter? Greenaway works at home and cares for her daughter part-time — if she got sick, who would fill the caregiver role? How would she and her husband deal with a loss of income?

“There are numerous verses in the Bible about caring for your neighbor and having compassion for other people,” she says. “I wanted to start thinking beyond myself.”

She received the Pfizer vaccine in April and has become an advocate for vaccination, appearing as a guest on CNN and writing an opinion piece for her local newspaper, The Williamsport Sun-Gazette. Her message in the op-ed: “I’m a conservative, politically, so I don’t necessarily think the government should be telling you to get this vaccine or what to be doing, but I feel like this should be a no-brainer, right? If I can unknowingly infect my grandma or somebody else — because you could have an asymptomatic case — why do you want to do that? It doesn’t make sense to me.”

Michael Robertson

Community health specialist, Columbia, South Carolina

Before he got COVID-19, Michael Robertson was careful. He wore a mask. He socially distanced. But Robertson was often exposed to a high-risk population. As a senior community health specialist at the Wright Wellness Center, a nonprofit that focuses on prevention and education for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases in Columbia, South Carolina, he tests clients for conditions such as HIV, hepatitis C, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. He also works at a local addiction treatment center — Robertson, 64, got clean in 2005 — where he assists clients as a certified peer support specialist.

“What I do is a joy,” he says.

Despite his precautions, Robertson woke up sweating on an April night. The next day he was coughing and short of breath. He tested positive for COVID-19 and was quarantined for 14 days. Yet he remained skeptical about the vaccine due to its rapid release.

“I wasn’t a cheerleader for the vaccine,” he says. “It came out so soon. Everything was happening so fast.”

Then his wife was vaccinated — and she encouraged their children to receive the vaccines. For the betterment of his family, Robertson rethought his reluctance.

“It was a burden on her, because I have a side job working at a homeless shelter, so she would be nervous at night when I came home,” he says. “It made her feel unsafe. I wanted my kids to be protected, [but] I wasn’t going to be able to ask them to do something that I hadn’t done myself.”

Reluctantly, he signed up for a vaccine, choosing Johnson & Johnson since it only required one shot.

“If they were gonna stick me one time I was alright with it, but I don’t know if I would have come back for the second one,” he says.

Despite his initial hesitation, Robertson now encourages others to get vaccinated. “I’m looking at this Delta variant and my recommendation is to stay safe,” he says. He’s reminded, he says, of tried-and-true wisdom from his grandma: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. “If she was here now,” he says, “I’d tell grandma that I finally understood what she was saying.”